Walking the vine-wreathed paths of Banteay Chhmar, a 12th-century temple near the Thai border that some call the “second Angkor Wat” feels like sneaking into a renowned historical site after the tour guides and the tourists have all gone home.
The pervasive silence can strike a first-time visitor as odd, given that the temple is open to anyone who embarks on the trip. But it is far from abnormal, say members of the Community-Based Tourism project in Banteay Chhmar village, an initiative supported by the group restoring the temple, Global Heritage Fund.
Hampered by its isolation and working on a shoestring budget, the project has made slow, but steady, progress since its inception five years ago. The number of sightseers goes up and down.
“Some days, one person will sit alone in the temple, some days, there is a group, and some days, no one visits the temple,” says the local director, Tath Sophal, while balancing himself against scaffolding on top of a section of ruins.
“The tourists who want to visit here, they always ask when they email, ‘What about the road?’ he said.
That road, a 69-kilometre sun-baked stretch of potholes, is a turbulent, two-hour ride from sleepy Sisophon town in northwestern Banteay Meanchey.
And that’s without inclement weather.
When the potholes collect water, as they have a habit of doing during the rainy season, the moist clay soil creates muddy, slippery impasses. Towards the end of last year, when the country experienced major flooding, four or five tour groups cancelled their visits.
Although its out-of-the-way location is a problem tourism infrastructure and the financial benefits that go with it have been growing year after year.
In 2007, when the program was established, 281 people visited Banteay Chhmar, which archaeologists believe was built by King Jayavarman VII during the Angkorian period.
The temple, though in disrepair, retains ornate bas-reliefs carved into walls depicting military confrontations between ancient Khmer soldiers and Cham armies.
The first year, tourists only spent around $3,000. Through a number of expanded activities, the project boosted revenue and took in $10,000 last year. In the period of January through July of 2012, visitors and profits were up 25 per cent, Sophal said.
Even the forbidding road that everyone emails about is getting a long overdue makeover, courtesy of the Asian Development Bank. Construction should be finished by the end of 2013.
The project trained tour guides in English, introduced scenic ox-cart rides and offered cooked meals at the office.
Tourists can also sleep over at eight “homestays,” in which families have refurbished parts of their residences as modest guest houses.
“I like hosting the tourists when they come here,” said Siem Seiv, 64, who arrived in the dusty and placid area of 1,200 families in 1993, after spending time in a Thai refugee camp following Khmer Rouge rule.
Siev and his family partitioned off a half the second floor, two bedrooms in total, for overnight guests.
“So we are like one family together,” Siev said. Although he makes about $400 a year from the homestay, it’s not enough, he says, explaining that he farms for extra income.
Most of the tour guides have two, or even three, jobs because giving tours is not steady full-time work.
Peat Pel, 38, is a guide, a moto taxi driver, a traditional music teacher and a farmer. He needs the extra work to help raise his two kids. He’s been taking intensive English classes for the past year as part of an agreement with tutors in Siem Reap.
Learning English will help him be a better guide, he says. But first, more tourists need to come.
“Right now it’s not sustainable yet, because the money is only a little,” Peat Pel says.
To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Freeman at [email protected]ost.com reporting from Banteay Meanchey province.